An Address Delivered by
Marc Maurer, Director of Legal Policy
National Federation of the Blind
July 8, 2018
In 1917, Calvin Coolidge, who would later become president of the United States, declared that four behaviors are responsible for making New England great. He said: “‘Eat it up.’ ‘Wear it out.’ ‘Make it do.’ ‘Do without.’” Frugality is the theme.
The author Jim Collins said in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't that “Good is the enemy of great.” He believes that if the performance of a company is good—especially very good—that company is unlikely to achieve greatness because the people involved in it will think that there is no point in changing what is working well.
In his play King Lear, Shakespeare has one of his characters remark: “Striving to better, oft we mar what's well.”
In 1772 Voltaire wrote: “Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.” (The better is the enemy of the good.)
The recommendation is to embrace frugality and to be satisfied whenever it seems that matters are good enough. However, greatness remains the elusive objective. Change at the basic level demands extravagant exertion, extravagant expenditure, extravagant imagination, and extravagant leaps of faith. If the systems we encounter are really adequate to meet whatever needs we have, extravagance is not required. But if something new is expected in the creative process, we must find a way to gather the resources and to apply them with the intense concentration necessary to shift the balance for progress.
Such matters come to mind when I contemplate the work of the National Federation of the Blind. When is the wise choice to accept what is good enough, and when is an absolute demand for excellence the only reasonable approach? We are asked, indeed expected, to accept what other people regard as good enough—not just occasionally but on a continuing basis. Sometimes we are not asked to accept the judgments of others but ordered to do so. However, something within us rejects this demand. Something within us speaks to the souls we have, telling us that good enough will never do. Something within us demands the best that we know.
In 1949 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first President of the National Federation of the Blind, published an article in which he said that equality as reflected in the Constitution of the United States must be interpreted so that characteristics of different groups of people would be employed to make legal distinctions only when those characteristics are relevant. At the time he wrote, he had observed that two classes of human beings, prisoners and people with disabilities, had been misclassified by the Supreme Court in ways that are not legally defensible. In 1955 Dr. tenBroek wrote that rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States are as applicable to disabled people as they are to anybody else. He thought that special legislation to address rights of disabled people should not perhaps be a part of the law because this would indicate that other legal protections available to people without disabilities might not apply to disabled human beings. By 1966 he had concluded that a criminal statute, the White Cane Law, should be adopted to assure disabled human beings the right to live in the world.
As members of the National Federation of the Blind know, the notion of disability rights, which was new during the period that Dr. tenBroek wrote, has come a long way since the drafting of the White Cane Law. However, my own review of Supreme Court decisions addressing the topic of disability rights indicates that the breadth of the scope of protection is much more limited for people with disabilities than is true for other classes.
Some groups of business leaders in the United States are attempting to cause members of Congress to add yet more restrictions to the protections offered in the law for people with disabilities. What these business leaders are saying, in effect, is, “Surely we didn’t mean to include you in the businesses we operate. Surely we shouldn’t be required to hire you. We run businesses for regular people; surely the law doesn’t say we are required to welcome you.” However, these business leaders are in favor of equal treatment for disabled people as long as the equal treatment must be provided by somebody else. When disabled people ask if their money isn’t just as good as the money offered by others, the honest response is, “No, not really, because it comes connected with you, and we don’t like your kind. Besides, aren’t there special places for you to live and to work, and didn’t our tax money pay for them already?”
Most technologies have not been intended for the use of the blind. Two products that have been proclaimed as essential in settling the American continent are the rifle and the axe. Most people believe these two products cannot be used effectively by the blind. In my own case, in the past I have agreed with this assessment. In a liberating and instructional sequence of events, I myself have learned, at least in a rudimentary way, how to use an axe. After I had learned to do this, and after I had been bragging about how courageous and gifted I was for acquiring such skill, I came upon a fellow member of the National Federation of the Blind who had been chopping wood for more than twenty years. He took the ability of blind people to chop wood for granted, and he could not imagine that knowledgeable people would doubt that the blind can perform this task.
This experience helped to change my mind about the application of technology to the lives of the blind. Technology is a fancy word for a tool. Generally, a piece of technology is a complicated tool, although the basic machines are not. Our experience has also changed the approach of the National Federation of the Blind to technology. We believe that it must be built so that all of us can use it whether we have the ability to see or not. Using technology with vision is valuable, but using it with touch or sound is equally valuable. This thought helped in the development of the blind-drivable car, and it is an element of the basis for our program to ensure that autonomous vehicles have an interface that is equally usable by sighted or blind drivers. The alteration of the approach is less in the technology itself than in the expectations that blind and sighted people will use it to the same degree.
In 1738 Daniel Bernoulli published scholarly material in which he observed that increasing the speed of a fluid over a surface decreases the pressure. The Bernoulli principle has application in aviation because the top surface of an airplane wing is curved, which means that the air flowing over it travels faster than the air flowing under it, which decreases the pressure and creates lift.
Almost from its very beginnings blind people have participated in aviation as passengers, but we have also had other roles. Some of us have been aviation mechanics, and some of us have supplied food or other materials to the aviation industry. Several years ago one blind man declared that he had become a pilot, and he spoke to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. However, despite significant efforts on my part to observe this blind person flying a plane, I was unable independently to verify the claims he made.
If we have learned anything during the decades of our history, we have come to know that changes in society that welcome our talent come only when we participate. Ordinarily the leaders of society do not think of the blind when they plan a design for the future. Consequently, we must find a way to get the attention of the people with whom we interact. It is said of the Army mule that it is a useful animal if you can get its attention. Frequently a two-by-four beside the head is the easiest way to accomplish this. Sometimes our own form of two-by-four is the only practical approach.
If we intend, as indeed we do, to be recognized as the valuable people we are, we must plan strategies for participation in all elements of the society in which we live. Consequently, it is incumbent upon us to begin with imaginative dreams and to plan for those dreams to become real. When I met the man who said he was a blind pilot, I was not convinced that he was telling me the whole story. However, I was convinced that methods could be devised for us to become nothing less than the people responsible for flying the planes. Indeed, I have tried it myself, sitting at the controls of a plane owned by a friend of mine. However, I did not think that I had sufficient information, or the tools to gather it, to permit me to land the plane independently. Such products must be invented.
In the aviation industry we are mostly unwelcomed—not just as workers but also sometimes as passengers on commercial planes. The list of complaints from blind people attempting to fly independently and peaceably on the airlines of the nation and the world is extensive. We decided in the 1980s that something should be done, and we persuaded our government to adopt the Air Carrier Access Act. This law was originally interpreted to mean that those of us denied the opportunity to fly on a commercial airline because of our disabilities could bring suit in federal court to challenge the discrimination. However, the Supreme Court decided to change the nature of the interpretation of law such that a right to sue the airlines would be withdrawn.
We have proposed to the American Bar Association that it adopt a resolution recognizing the urgent need for disabled passengers not to encounter discrimination in air travel and to be able to challenge the discrimination in court. The most recent statistics available indicate that in 2016, 32,445 complaints regarding disability-related incidents were filed against the airlines with the Department of Transportation. Some statisticians believe that at least ten incidents occur for each one for which a complaint is filed. The Department of Transportation does have some administrative authority over the airlines, but it almost never takes any action on behalf of disabled passengers except to send a note to the airlines telling them that discrimination is forbidden. As one commentator put it, this is like telling the airlines, “Bad dogs, no, no!”
The Industrial Revolution altered the mechanisms of production and as a result the nature of society. Some authors believe that we are now in the 4th industrial revolution. In this revolution biological systems will become digital, nanotechnology will permit manipulation of tissue at the cellular level, pyramidal governance systems will give way to much more widely distributed knowledge and power, and alterations will take place in the classification of human beings and the methods for acquiring wealth. Already blockchain technology has created the cryptocurrencies that have brought wealth to some and heartache to others. These currencies have not been issued by government but arise from the nature of the technology that created them. They represent a previously unknown form of wealth. Predictions for blockchain technology suggest that this particular method of sharing information will change much more than the investment options represented by bitcoin. These alterations will inevitably modify political systems and the law.
Within the 4th industrial revolution some people will invent new machines; some will write books, although they will not be distributed on paper; some will imagine new forms of entertainment; and some will concentrate on new concepts. Those who create the machines will undoubtedly change the nature of the ways we interact with one another. However, the organizations and individuals to address the future in the most effective manner will be those who concentrate on ideas.
In the National Federation of the Blind we have invented technologies. We created NFB-NEWSLINE® for the blind, and we built the blind-drivable car. Our work was also quite influential in bringing Braille notetakers into the marketplace. However, we have done most of our work by inventing new methods of thought, and this has been the most influential contribution we could make. Ours is a philosophical comprehension of disability which declares that all human beings have contributions to make—that all have value. Our job is to find that value and to employ methods that will put it to work. We will not just survive the 4th industrial revolution; we will help to bring to it the kind of basic thought and the kind of uplifted spirit that make our contributions welcomed. However, none of this will happen until we have made our determination perfectly clear. We will be grateful for an invitation to help with the planning no more. We expect to be in meetings when the decisions are made. We will apologize for the changes that we demand no more. We require that universal acceptance of the value that we have be understood. Our place on the fringe is no longer enough. Not only will we walk the corridors of power; we will help to shape them. The form they take will be better than it might otherwise have been because of the ideas we bring. We have value, and we cannot be written off.
When I was a small boy, I told my mother that I could help. I did not want to be left out of the projects we undertook as a family. She gave me a job. Since that time I have had many, many jobs, but in most cases I have had to invent them myself. I have contributions to make and a burning desire to make them. My experience with members of the National Federation of the Blind informs me that I am not alone. You share this goal. You too have contributions to make.As I was considering these thoughts for our national convention, my friend and colleague Pat Miller urged me to tell you of a saying of Confucius which is, "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." I feel certain she had in mind that organizations and human beings are not perfect but that they possess qualities of genuine value without achieving perfection. If you put your mind and your heart to the effort, a diamond you can become. Unique contributions can be made by your energy and your commitment. Reflecting upon the comments of our President at the 75th anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind, I know for a certainty that working with each other we have the power to build a society that includes us all. I know for a certainty that we can create a welcoming personality for each of us within our nation. Properly polished we will have the hardness and the force that comes to the tool that carries the diamond as its cutting edge. The value we possess has the beauty of the facets cut from this most enduring gem. The dream of equality we share is extravagant—and the only reasonable approach. Let us gather the force to make it real.